For Free and Fair Election, We Need International Supervision - Says Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

February 28, 2003

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
As the 2003 Liberian presidential and general elections draw nearer, presidential hopefuls have begun declaring their intentions. But Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a former deputy minister of finance in Liberia and former head of UNDP who finished second to Charles Taylor in the 1997 elections, has been mute about her intention. So Managing Editor George H. Nubo of The Perspective called up Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to find out if she is one of those who are interested in the Liberian presidency. Full text of Mr. Nubo's discussion with Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf is published below:

The Perspective: We are few months away from the Liberian Presidential and general elections, but unlike others who are eying Mr. Taylor's position, you have been mute. Are you running for president?

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: I have not yet determined that it's time for me or for Unity Party to put up a presidential candidate. We are involved in a process of collaboration with other parties. We hope that that process will lead to a merger - or short of a merger, some collaboration that will enable us to have a united front and thereby increase our effectiveness in challenging Mr. Taylor. In any case, we don't think that the conditions are ripe for free and fair elections.

The Perspective: What are the parties involved in the collaboration talks.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: Unity Party has been working with Liberian Action Party, to a certain extent with Liberia Unification Party, and with Liberian People's Party. Now it is clear from recent development that the Liberian People's Party has now reached a point where they feel that they are prepared to move towards a collaboration that takes a place of a merger. It is also increasingly clear that the Liberia Unification Party has its own idea of what conditions will pertain for them to go with a merger. We hope that they will continue because they're also part of the process. But I think the Unity Party and the Liberian Action Party are very strong in their commitment. This is the right way to go! And we've been talking to the Free Democratic Party of Liberia so to see if they might want to come into this kind of arrangement.

The Perspective: From information we obtained last year, these parties that are involved in the mergers or collaboration talks were to make a public announcement on December 30, 2002. Is it due of these differences that the parties have not reached any conclusion?

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: I think you are probably quoting form the Technical Committee Report on the whole merger idea. Representatives from the four parties met and drew up a report including a timetable for achieving certain results. Yet, you are correct, we have not made much progress and therefore that timetable has not been met. And yes we do have some serious difficulties now in that some of the parties do not seem to have the commitment to move forward. But those of us who are really committed to this process will continue to make progress.

The Perspective: Well, Cllr. Brumskine has declared his intention and so is Dr. Tipoteh. What is stopping you from declaring your intention so that when there is a merger all of you will be considered?

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: In my view, to announce one's personal candidacy undermines the whole process of a merger because it takes the focus away from the institution building and from the collaboration to the personal ambition and the personal efforts to start campaigning for the achievement of that personal ambition. I also believe that it is not time for us to talk about who is going to be what, who is running for what, because we need to start to take common position on issues relating to the conditions that will allow free and fair elections. I said in Monrovia, when I was there few weeks ago, that if we are not careful in our coming together and in ensuring that we have the right climate for free and fair elections we will find ourselves on a slippery slope where we will begin to give credibility to a fraudulent process.

The Perspective: If, for instance, Liberian Action Party and Unity Party were to form a merger, would you be interested in running for the presidency?

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: Yes, if the two parties, in some kind of a convention, some kind of a democratic process decide that I am the most appropriate person to lead the group - yes, of course. Then I am going to give it my everything and frankly we will win. And if we come together and decide that, for some whatever reasons, for what ever condition that someone else is the most logical person, the most capable person of achieving the win that we want, I will give my full force and support to that process and that person.

The Perspective: But do you think the decision to select you will be made while you are away from the country, and have not shown any interest in the position? Do you think they will just come up to you to say: "we want you to be our presidential candidate"?

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: I think you're very wrong when you talk about being out of the country. I may have my office and my professional life out of the country, but I am always there. I am building the party, I am working with people - the constituency is there - if I wanted to be a candidate, I could just go there tomorrow and say, " I'm announcing my candidacy". ...I think we ought to concentrate on identifying the issues, the conditions for free and fair elections, that we ought to concentrate on building the institution by bringing some of the parties together and in due course, the people will decide. If we leave it with the people, I have every confidence that they know who have been doing things to support them - whether they are on the ground or not, who have the capability, and the track record and the integrity to be able to rebuild the country. I'm going with a team approach --- I'm not trying to push myself. I don't have to push myself. I think I've already established myself in so many ways that I don't have to concentrate on me right now.

The Perspective: Many Liberians at home and in the Diaspora joined Kenyans in celebrating Mwai Kibaki's victory during the Kenyan presidential election. What did you and your colleagues learn from the Kenyan experience?

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: Well, I believe we learnt that with the commitment to a national cause, people can come together, and people can rise above their own personal ambitions. We learnt that! But let me say that the conditions and the circumstances in Kenya and in Liberia are quite different. In Kenya, you had long standing president who had reached the end of his time, who was pressured both internally and externally to a point where he had to step down. With all of the shortcomings, the Kenyans were not dealing with someone in power who is, perhaps, as violent and brutal as we see in our country. So there are differences there that take away from us being able to copy the Kenyan experience. However, the whole idea of bringing people together, uniting, getting away from division - we have our examples of failure by not coming together [during] the 1985 elections, and the 1997 elections - that experience teaches us that we can do something along the Kenyan line to come together. But in my view, we need to come together first on the issues; we need to come together on the conditions for free and fair elections. We need to insist on things like a stabilization force to protect the safety of the people when they vote, in campaigning, in their political activities. We need to insist on some international supervision of the process to make sure that the playing field is level. If we do not address those issues, quite frankly, even if we do come together, we will all be participating in a process that's going to be fraudulent.

The Perspective: How do we get the stabilization force to Liberia?

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: I think a united opposition with the civil society organizations should insist on this. The international community has also recognized the need for this. Different Liberian consultative groups - in Ouagadougou, in Bethesda, in Abuja have called for this. Let us even face it - even the government and Mr. Taylor at a certain point in time endorsed the whole idea for stabilization force. With them - under different conditions than what others may want to see, but on the basis that a stabilization force gives confidence to the electorate and ensures their safety. It is something that we must all insist on. I think we will get international support, we will get regional support if we hold that line. But to hold that line, we must have a united front - not have people saying "the country is safe enough - Liberia is as safe as any place else", while others saying "the country is not safe." The record is there! The country is just not safe. People are not safe! Even recently, in political activities, there are so many incidents that have caused us to know - we have not even reached campaigning yet. And many of us are facing obstacles, we are facing harassment, and facing undue interferences from the security forces. Will we get a stabilization force just by insisting on it? No, the government has to welcome such a force. And we can only say that if the government does not do it, then we have to question their sincerity when it comes to free and fair election as they said they are willing to do.

The Perspective: Well, several opposition groups have called for such a force. I understand that the just ended United Methodist Annual Conference called for a stabilization force, but the government is not moving in that direction. So what's next?

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: I think a united opposition, civil society, can say if we do not see faith in the environment in which we must campaign, in which we must do political work, then there is no point in us participating in the elections. You see, it is in Mr. Taylor's interest to have these elections, and for all of us to give credibility to the elections. And that's where we have our advantage. We have to use that advantage by saying if you don't give us that environment that is safe for us to do our work, then we're not going to give credibility to the process that you want - because you want the credibility so if there is fraud, we will be legitimizing you.

The Perspective: Are you saying that if the enabling environment that will render the October,2003, elections free and fair is not created, the opposition should boycott the elections?

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: Absolutely! Absolute because there will be no point in legitimizing a fraudulent process.

The Perspective: Mr. Taylor has indicated that he's going to uphold article 52 C of the Liberian Constitution, which stipulates that no person shall be eligible to be president or vice president of the Republic of Liberia provided that person is a "resident in the Republic ten years prior to his election." Does that affect you?

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: It does not affect me and it does not affect so many others. We have had legal opinions about that clause and the fact that that clause is not applicable. We have had people who were part of the Assembly that put that provision in that are even trying to talk about the intent and the spirit of that provision. So, you know, it doesn't hold. I don't even want to talk about my personal case because after having worked for the UN for five years, being a legal resident of Liberia, paying taxes there, even though I have my professional base outside, it does not affect me. But all of that in our environment is irrelevant. First of all, it is not Mr. Taylor who should be interpreting the Constitution - it should be the court. He is even interpreting it before the case is brought before the Elections Commission and the court --- that tells us that we cannot expect that there will be proper interpretation. He will just rule what he wants. And if he rules what he wants, and the Elections Commission upholds it, the Supreme Court upholds it, that will perhaps be nothing we can do except to say, if the opposition was united, that if you're going to be the judge and jury, if you're going to deprive people of their rights, if you're going to ignore the fact that the Constitution requirement under the conditions we have is not applicable, then Mr. Taylor go crown yourself king.

The Perspective: But if Mr. Taylor's interpretation is the right intent of the framers of the constitution, why can't we applaud his effort in upholding the Liberian Constitution?

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: I wish Mr. Taylor respected the Constitution. I can show you so many other provisions of the Constitution that he has violated with impunity. You know, if he was a constitutionalist, interpreting the rule of law, then the kind of abuse of human rights, the kind of abuse of the liberties of the people, which are [prohibited] by the Constitution will be something that he will respect. Yes, we will [applaud] somebody who wants to give respect and credence to the Constitution and to our law, but that is not what is at stake here. We are not talking about that. In any case, look if Mr. Taylor, whether improperly or illegally, if the institution and the court decide to impose it, we will deal with that. That's not the end of the line. If we had the conditions for free and fair elections and that particular provision were illegally and improperly imposed, then we will find a way to rally around a united opposition ticket that meets those requirements and still move towards it. But we must have the conditions that even if we try to rally around someone who meets those requirements, ...that we have the conditions that will enable us to win, for the people choice to be exercised and to be respected. And I'm saying we do not have those conditions.

The Perspective: If the election of candidate is based on meeting Mr. Taylor's interpretation, isn't it likely that we will end up with someone who does not have the mandate of the people?

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: Even if we had the condition that was right, and if those unfair, illegal provisions were imposed, I would want to rally around somebody who has the character, the integrity, the track record, and the principle that we can respect. And that that person must have the capacity to bring about the long standing changes that have been due in our society - for the total re-ordering of our society, a social re-ordering, a political re-ordering, and economic re-ordering. If I could not find such a person, I will just refrain. What I will not do, to put it in simple Liberian language, is to go for "the same taxi, different driver."

The Perspective: But the Elections Commission Chairman Paul Guah recently indicated that those who are running for the presidency have to fulfill article 52 (a), (b) and (c) in order to be eligible to run. What's next? Does this means that the opposition will have to challenge Mr. Guah's interpretation?

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: We have already written to Mr. Guah for his ruling on the clause by the Elections Commission. Now, I have heard that he has made the statement. Whether it is in the form of a formal ruling by the Elections Commission to enable us to go to the next stage which is the court or whether Mr. Guah was just speaking informally, I just don't know. I only heard that he said this in a statement. We need a response - a formal response to the letter that has been written to him. Unity Party has written, I believe Liberian Action Party and others may have written asking the commission to make a ruling. Now, if this is a formal ruling and he is responding to our letter, then I think we have to collectively go to the next step to make sure that his interpretation is not one that will be upheld by the court. And let me say that we expect our courts to have the integrity and the independence to rule properly in this case. If they don't, they will be accountable to the Liberian people in the future.

The Perspective: What about the fact that the Supreme Court is replete with Taylor's appointees? Don't you feel that they will rule in the way that pleases Mr. Taylor?

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: There is no other place to take it. We believe in the law, we abide by the law. If the Elections Commission rules improperly on it, we have to go the next step and the next step is the Supreme Court. What else can we do, we have to take it there. And if the judges rule... in the way that pleases Mr. Taylor, like I said, these are the times those are the conditions. We will challenge it and we want to hear the people's voices in this. We want the Liberian people to speak up, we want for them to take a position to say: "we are not going to accept this, we are not going to allow this. And if the [government] insists on this illegal and unfair imposition then Mr. Taylor, we don't need to have election, go declare yourself King." I mean he has already destroyed Liberia, he just taking it to its early grave.

The Perspective: Why do you think Mr. Taylor had to evoke article 52 (C) of the Liberian Constitution- specifically the Ten Year residency?

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: This is very simple Mr. Nubo. Mr. Taylor is afraid of effective competition. This is somebody who says they won with 80 percent plus of the votes [in 1997], may have even gone into the Guinness Book of Records by even winning by 100 percent if they didn't stop counting, this is somebody who said they will win by 90 percent [in the next election]. Somebody like that should not be afraid of competition. If you are very popular and you know the Liberian people love you, then stop being obstacle in the way to eliminate the strong opposition to yourself. ...Why did he put this forward? He put this forward because it is the best way of eliminating the strong opposition and to be able to try to win. I still don't think under free and fair election, he can win. I say, anybody can beat Mr. Taylor if elections are free and fair. I said it before and I'll say it again. But this is his way of trying to reduce it to those who he thinks he can control, those who he thinks he can find a way to make a deal [with], and all of that. You know, that's unfortunate, but you know that's the system we live with. It's another example to the nation and the international community of the kind of regime that we have to live with.

The Perspective: Considering the way the opposition is demoralized and fragmented, do you think Mr. Taylor would lose if elections were held today?

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: Absolute! I don't even care if there were one even two independent opposition parties that were contesting the elections, or as for that matter fifteen, twenty of them. I think any strong party, party that has already established itself on the ground, that has the constituency to win, will win the elections if the conditions are free and fair.

The Perspective: But don't you think that a fragmented opposition makes it easier for Mr. Taylor to cheat in the elections?

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: A fragmented opposition takes away from the kind of overwhelming support that the opposition could muster. I still don't think under free and fair conditions, any party challenging Mr. Taylor with the fragmentation that exists could not win. I think they can still win, but it is very true that with a united opposition, not only can you take issues, common issues, but also you can win with an overwhelming mandate from the people to enable you to effect the kinds of changes that are required. And so this is why we said we are all trying to make an effort to bring the parties together as much as possible. We are not getting smaller number, you know, the parties are growing. We had thirteen in the 1997 elections, I believe we have something like nineteen today. That is not a good sign! That is not good for being able to challenge the status quo. So, we have to work harder at it, but we have to start on the issues and not concentrate at this point in time on who is running for what.

The Perspective: During Mr. Brumskine's trip to Atlanta, he indicated that he will join an alliance or a merger provided the parties involved are willing to have a primary. He wants for the primary system to be used to determine the candidate of the merging opposition parties. And according to one of the press releases received by this paper, he discussed that with you when he met with you. The press went further to say that you agreed with Mr. Brumskine in principle, but you had a different alternative in mind. What did you have in mind?

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: Look, I told Mr. Brumskine the primary system is not known to Liberian electorate. We never had it before in our system. However, the objective of a primary system, i.e., is to enable the people to have a choice in the selection of candidates is a principle to which we fully agreed that we may have to have another variant to the primary system that enables this democratic process to take place. I spoke for example to him of an inter-party convention in which representatives (members) of different parties, participating in the collaborative effort would come together and the different parties would put up candidates for what ever positions they wanted, and collective partisans from the different parties will select, on the basis of its candidate presenting itself, its vision, platform, its program and would select who they felt would better deliver to the Liberian people. And no big difference in what we were saying in terms of the allowing choice and the democratic process to proceed. If that what you call it, when you say primary, that's something foreign to the Liberian people. And that's all the point I made to him. We don't have many fundamental differences as to the objective and the result.

The Perspective: So since the primary system is foreign to us, there is no room for new things to be introduced?

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: Much room for new things. We need new things to be introduced, but we don't introduce new things that will confuse people at the ninth hour . That's all I'm saying. You tell people you want to have primaries in the counties, many people will ask you "what are primaries?" That's a nice American system that may be good for us down the road to strengthen our democracy, I'm just saying you got to put it in the terms and in the manner that is understood today. That's all!

The Perspective: I understand that Mr. Brumskine has not been able to go to his hometown, Buchanan, since he arrived in the country in January because of the prevailing security situation in the country. I also understand that you could not reach to the Red Light in Paynesville when you were in Monrovia recently. Does the security situation in the country play any part in Liberia not being ready for the primary system?

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: Yes, of course because you know a primary system requires that you go to all the different counties and you know different candidates would go and put themselves before the people, and have the people select. But we have many obstacles to achieving that in Liberia today because of the security factor. You have just pointed to a few of the incidents - there are so many other incidents: The Unity Party was not able to put up its flag right there in Bong County when we got our office strengthened over there. So clearly! And then there is the whole question of the infrastructure. Our infrastructures are completely destroyed due to lack of maintenance over so many years. There are so many parts of the country you can't even get to. In another couple of months we will be in a raining season and the difficulties in getting to the rural areas will be even more intense. So we have a serious problem! But that's not to say we must do Monrovia-politics. As a matter of fact Unity Party today is trying to get its office established in many of the counties. And as we did in '97, I think we were one of the few candidates that went to almost all of the counties. All parties or collaborating parties must reach into those counties, but to carry the primary system in those counties under the security conditions, under the infrastructure condition will make it so difficult. So we have to find another way to achieve the same objective.

The Perspective: We have war going on between the Taylor regime and LURD. Don't you feel that we cannot have elections while the war is going on?

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: I agree. I think the war has to come to an end. We have all condemned the war. We have condemned both sides that are participating in this war because of the atrocities that are being levied by both sides. We have called for a halt to the war, we have appealed to the dissidents to put down their arms and join the political process. We heard the government announcement that a meeting would be held in Bamako very soon under the auspices of ECOWAS to bring the two sides together to agree on a ceasefire. I did read that if the ruling party and the dissidents came together, the opposition parties would be excluded. I just took that for a big joke. I don't know what he meant by "excluded." But any way, we were glad to hear that . But most recently I heard that fighting is going on again and that's very disturbing. There are times when we believe there is a war and there are times when we believe that this is all political manipulation to serve personal purposes. It is causing too much suffering to the Liberian people and that's why we continue to say that it has to stop. It is wrong and people must stop putting the Liberian people under these kinds of hardships.

The Perspective: Do you have any message for Liberians and the international community?

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: I think the Liberian people have to take responsibility for the change which is required in our country. Liberian people have to come out of their cocoons, out of their closets and express themselves in a peaceful and legal way by joining the party or organization of their choice, giving their support, [and] expressing their views... The international community is looking forward to that. They want the support of the Liberian people. They are in sympathy with the Liberian people, their conditions and their suffering. They cannot do for us what we are not willing to do for ourselves. We cannot keep talking just in our little bedrooms, we have to get out there. Like I said, it has to be done in a peaceful and legal [way]. Other citizens [citizens of other countries] have expressed themselves in this way. They have gone out and stood against wrong in their societies. Liberian people have to do that! The international community will not do it for us. We have to do it for ourselves then they will give support. The international community has done a lot for us. They are waiting for us to act so that they will come to our support, not only to change the existing political situation but to also help us to start the process of economic reconstruction to restore the dignity to our people.

The Perspective: Thank You